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Hamburger Diaries: Jack in the Box

Friday, 4 March, 2011

Regular readers will note a respite for the Hamburger Diaries. I simply cannot find the time for the exercise of writing as I once did. Among the things keeping me busy is participating in a relatively new household of two cats, two bicycles, two people and their possessions all in about 400 square feet (37 m²). Oddly, it is working well.

During our weekly shopping expedition to the suburbs, my beloved kept mentioning her curiosity with regard to the heavily advertised Deli Trio sandwiches from Jack in the Box, a restaurant with which she was not familiar. An element of my surprise was her explicit desire to visit Jack in the Box. We have done so.

Within these pages, I have provided a very brief interpretation of the company’s history.

The first Jack in the Box opened in Long Beach, California in 1951 as an offshoot of a regional drive-in chain Oscar’s. The new initially limited menu and innovative “drive through window” system proved so popular the entire chain was switched to the Jack format. The holding company was organized as “Foodmaker Company” of San Diego. Whether the initial expansion locations were company owned or franchised operations is not clear from my research, but the first extra-regional expansion was to Dallas ca. 1957 where the “drive-thru” proved similarly popular.

Jack in the Box

Jack in the Box logos from 1986 and 2009. The 1986 edition remains in use at many restaurants.

Another innovation from Jack in the Box was twenty-four hour service. Potentially apocryphal is the story that the still open and operating restaurant near the University of Texas was the very first twenty-four hour quick-service restaurant.  It is directly across the street from the first twenty-four hour 7-eleven

The founders re-organized as Foodmaker, Inc in 1966 and subsequently sold the company to Ralston-Purina. This is the same era during which General Foods owned Burger Chef and Pillsbury owned Burger King. Foodmaker division of R-P was the least successful of these corporate-division experiments. During 1970, Ralston-Purina announced plans to make Jack in the Box a national company, and shifted their image to be slightly upscale. By 1980, they managed only to expand to adjacent states and were shedding franchisers.

Thus the era of fluctuating identities and a lack of focus commenced. “The Clown” was blown up in an infamous television advertisement. The remaining restaurants were remodeled in period pastels with hanging plants. The menu expanded to nearly unworkable diversity. In 1985 the name was changed in the Pacific Northwest to Monterrey Jack’s with nearly fatal results.

Ralston spun off Foodmaker in 1986. The name was restored to all restaurants, but every aspect of the company lacked focus. What analysis I’ve seen of these dark days claims Jack only survived due to their excellent locations. The newly independent Foodmaker, Inc. was listed on Nasdaq (Symbol today, previous symbol JBX: JACK). The darkest days were yet to come.

During 1993 people in California, Idaho, Washington state and Nevada were turning up in emergency rooms and testing positive for E. coli bacterium. Four children ultimately died. Universally, they had visited one or another Jack in the Box restaurant within twenty-four hours of hospital admission. Although this was later proved to be more about the processes of beef-product manufacturing and could have occurred at any quick-service restaurant, Jack in the Box took the blow.

In the Autumn of 1993, Moody’s rating for Foodmaker’s stock was “junk”.

The entire chain was closed for review of food-handling practices and the disposal of all meat inventory. Although under no legal obligation to do so, this inventory was treated as biohazardous waste. Franchisers were allowed to abandon the chain upon the provision the existing stores and inventory be sold to Foodmaker. The vast majority of existing restaurants became company owned.

If I may interject a personal observation bluntly: The one quick-service restaurant chain in which I have absolute confidence with the absence of unintended material or bacteria within the food I am served is Jack in the Box. Further, if this company can withstand this disaster in every sense and as long as the current generation of management is in place, Jack in the Box has a bright future.

The 1994-to-date “Jack” campaign started as a parody of the many contemporary campaigns featuring the, often no longer involved, founder of one or another company. Although the actual management of the real company largely persevered, within the realm of television commercials The Clown was back.

The eventual focus was low price, modest but persistent quality and the first consistent image presented by the Jack in the Box in nearly fifteen years. The “Jack” campaign has survived, even a change of agency, longer than company had floundered. Although intended to attract the attention of quick-service’s most common and least loyal customer, male 16-24, Jack has entered the popular culture even far away from Jack in the Box territories.

Although your humble narrator must confess he does not understand why Jack in the Box chose to purchase radio and television time either nationally or far outside Jack in the Box’s operating areas. The company stated that they wanted to test the appeal of their restaurants in additional markets, but how could one know without first-hand knowledge of the actual dining experience?

During the Jack campaign, the chain has expanded into new markets and states and for the first time east of the Mississippi River in such unexpected locations as Nashville and Charlotte. Nashville is the only metropolis on Earth where one finds both White Castle and Jack in the Box, and in at least one instance literally across the street from one another.

Although the old moniker “Foodmaker” implied a company that aspired to several brands, their only brand was the one discussed here.  They purchased Qdoba Mexican Grill in 2003 from a venture capital partnership and currently operate Qdoba a a wholly owned subsidiary with no connection to the mother brand. Between 2004 and 2006 “JBX Grill” locations were operated in the San Diego market. This was their attempt to create a “fast casual” brand. Although the JBX renovated locations returned to the Jack in the Box brand, the premium features, such as an outdoor patio or fireplace, remain.

Around 7 PM on a Friday night, just after the rush hour, we found ourselves at 1801 W. Ben White Blvd in Austin.

This restaurant opened some time after 1977 and is the typical design for the period. In 2008 several regional restaurants were renovated to “premium feel” brown and deep orange motif with freestanding tables instead of booths. This is such a place. The decor is largely a tribute to the Jack television campaign, featuring framed collages of scenes from those commercials. You guys don’t really have to show me a commercial, I’m already here.

A few years out the once-premium interior is not wearing well.

My companion was a bit overwhelmed by the vast, but clear menu. Like an old style diner or even Taco Bell, Jack features a variety of ingredients which may be assembled in a confounding array of combinations. Each with its own nickname list on the menu. We order combos.

She orders the Deli Trio with turkey, ham and a sun-dried tomato sauce. In the interest of science, I order the #1, Jumbo Jack with cheese. They take a name which seemed awkward and potentially confusing. In the otherwise empty restaurant our order is up in three minutes. Jack serves Coca-Cola products including Dr Pepper and Hi-C orange. No Ace-K beverages. Unless you explicitly state “unsweet tea” when you order, you will get HFCS-sweetened iced tea. I’ve never had a JBX shake, and didn’t this evening. They are the standard chocolate, strawberry and vanilla with the fourth spout changing by season. Expect Egg Nog every November and December.

Regular fries, seasoned “curly fries” and onion rings are on offer.

I must first address the steamed, pressed Deli Trio. It appears San Diego has compelled the purchase of a device which makes these sandwiches, as one finds a similar sandwich on the breakfast menu. Although pricey, for JBX, my companion’s example just wasn’t very interesting. Pre-sliced turkey and ham with a sauce, warmed then the whole sandwich is somehow toasted. They are about four inches and quite flat. If I were in the mood for such a thing, I’d just go to a sub shop. The sauce has just enough of what we presume is sun-dried tomato to fulfill the legal obligation to promote the idea. In short, the steamed, toasted sandwich was a disappointment.

Sadly my companion was so disappointed and left unfulfilled by the Deli Trio, she returned for a Jumbo Jack with cheese. It isn’t a good sign when a customer for your new premium sandwich envies her dining companion’s value sandwich.

My Jumbo Jack with (American) cheese was a textbook example. When I get visitors from overseas who want the genuine American hamburger, instead of the exotic or gourmet variation, I drag them to Jack in the Box. Believe it or not, it always goes over quite well. I shall repeat, despite obviously inferior ingredients, the Jumbo Jack really is more than the sum of its parts. It is a fully dressed “5-to-1” burger on a 20% toasted bun. Yes, the Jumbo Jack is smaller than its alleged competition but hits the quality-price nexus spot on. I enjoy the Jumbo Jack more so than the premium sandwiches on offer. The beef is rich and of reasonable quality on a nice, firm bun. Unlike the direct competition, you will find leaves of lettuce on your sandwich.

Jack’s fries are always hot, and they apparently pride themselves on this. I suspect they’ve worked out a better system than heat lamps to consistently provide hot fries, but I don’t know what that might be. Fluffy inside, sometimes but not always al dente on the outside. At the intended price point, these are the best fries going.

I also ordered “two tacos for 99¢”. This is a curious offering because no other burger joint does tacos and no taco joint does burgers. Alas, the bean and beef filling with a slice of American cheese makes for a pretty good taco. For four-bits its excellent. That is where Jack excels; they have mastered the price point.

Even so, we were not that satisfied with the overall experience. By the time we ordered two combos and two supplemental items we approached $17. That is Whataburger’s price point. Unlike Jack’s if you leave Whataburger unsatisfied, you’re trying to find problems.

If you stick with the standard fare, Jack runs a swell, cheap place to grab a bite. I cannot recommend anything premium, because you really can get something better for your money. Some fountain Ace-K would be nice.

  1. Dave permalink
    Sunday, 15 May, 2011 0:59

    “…no other burger joint does tacos and no taco joint does burgers.”

    Del Taco does burgers:


    • Sunday, 15 May, 2011 19:00

      So noted. I’ve been off the West Coast for too long.


    • Sunday, 22 May, 2011 13:40

      In an unforgivable oversight, Dairy Queen at least in Texas, serves “T-brand” tacos. How can I have been in Texas for fifteen years and overlook Dairy Queen?



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